Hello again! I’m extremely excited to say that Penka Kouneva’s cinematic orchestral album, The Woman Astronaut, was released on July 10th by Varese Sarabande / Universal Music Group. This marks the release of the first big project I have worked on since moving to LA, and I’m here to talk about my specific role in it. (A big thank you to Renzo Heredia for the idea!)
Making Sounds & Coffee
So what did I do? I’m credited both as the “composer’s assistant” as well as an “additional synth programmer” for the tracks Looking Up (5), Space (10), and Solar Flare (14). These two titles effectively separate my support work (assistant) from my creative work (synth programming). As Penka’s assistant, I created basic templates, bounced a ton of stems, and did various tasks that she didn’t have time to focus on. As a synth programmer, I helped take Penka’s creative vision and turn it into something tangible, whether that be sequencing a drum part, or designing new sounds.
I began working with Penka in September 2014. She had been writing the tracks for the past year, and the majority of tracks were ready for recording when I joined. Although Penka had a large team on the project, I worked exclusively with her. She gave me tasks and direction, and I helped make it come to life. I didn’t meet everyone else until the recording session on October 29th. Any questions I had that Penka couldn’t answer were routed through her to another member of the team. This way, she was kept in the loop with everything.
Interpreting Creative Visions
So for example, let’s look at track 10, In Space. This was one of the last tracks written, and as a result I was able to see the entire process. The piece would feature Ayana Haviv as a solo vocalist, and focus upon the beauty of space, but also the dangers that it holds. It’s structured in an ABA format, where the music goes from the peacefulness and tranquility of the A section to utter chaos and destruction in B, and then back again. Penka described each section saying that during the A section we’re floating through space, slowly wandering the universe. In the B section, it’s as if we enter a black hole, and chaos erupts. What was once beautiful is now mangled and the tension builds and builds until finally the black hole is gone, and we are left back in open space. This was the outline given before any notes were written.
Penka asked me if I could design spectral synths or sounds from white noise that could create this feeling of beauty to chaos and back. She showed me a piece called Spectre by the Kronos String Quartet as a model which you can check out here: https://youtu.be/BH1RLz5q-vk?t=191
At this point in the composition, she had written the basic chords and had a general idea of timings. So I took this info and recreated it in my sequencer, and began to design. I decided that I could create this effect best with a synth, and began to layer different types of noise together, with added effects to create a sense of movement and change over time. I created several of these noise synths, and one extremely low rumble synth. This gave me a focused sound at every frequency, and since each synth was different, they competed with each other creating a feeling of turbulence as the moving parts of each one synced and unsynced at different intervals.
Additionally, Penka asked me to take samples of Ayana’s voice and place them into the B section in some way. So I took her voice and threw it through all sorts of processing, mangling it until you could still hear vocal expressions, but distorted enough that it felt alien and unfriendly. The voice was being lost in the darkness of the black hole. Once we had all of these elements together, the piece came to life and we prepared for recording!
Listen to the final piece here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QBAUEGfnfMI
So for October 29th, my job was to take our MIDI files, audio from soloists, and audio from other synth programmers, and create a mix that could be used for recording. A lot of the tracks were written quickly, and as a result, the levels needed balancing for the studio. I worked primarily on The Forest, In Space, and Solar Flare, mainly just adjusting volumes to avoid distortion. There was no need to do any extremely specific processing since our mixer John Rodd would redo it all once he had the live instruments.
During the session itself, I brought coffee for everyone who was helping out and helped with any small tasks Penka needed. But mostly, I got to sit and enjoy the process of recording. It’s extremely rewarding to hear the music live and be there to see it happen. At this point, most of my work was finished and it was up to the rest of the team to finish the mix and master.
Over the next nine months, the project was out of our hands. Everything was written and recorded, and John Rodd was doing his mixing magic. My role was essentially complete. Occasionally, I had to bounce a stem again because of an error or recreate a sound file that had been lost, but otherwise I had finished and Penka and I began new projects.
Thanks for reading, and you can listen and purchase the album here!
Also, I’m putting together a mailing list. If you’re interested, please let me know! Will post soon once it’s up! 🙂